LINCOLN, Neb. —The number of wins and losses didn’t get Bo Pelini fired. It was the way some of those losses happened.
Pelini was dismissed as Nebraska’s coach Sunday after a seven-year stint marked by an inability to restore the football team to national prominence and too many embarrassing defeats.
Pelini extended his streak of winning at least nine games every season with a 37-34 overtime win at Iowa on Friday, but he never won a conference championship and his teams lost four games in every season he completed. Pelini was 66-27 and led the Cornhuskers to three league championship games in the Big 12 and Big Ten.
“I didn’t see enough improvement in areas that were important for us to move forward to play championship-caliber football,” athletic director Shawn Eichorst said at a news conference.
“We just, for whatever reason, weren’t good enough in the games that mattered against championship-caliber opponents. And I didn’t see that changing. It wasn’t a lack of effort by him or his staff or our wonderful players, but I think new leadership was in order.”
Associate head coach Barney Cotton, a Nebraska alum, will be the interim head coach for the Cornhuskers’ bowl game.
Pelini, a former LSU defensive coordinator, was under contract through February 2019. Eichorst said the university will owe him a settlement of about $7.9 million, which can be reduced once he lands another job.
Asked for comment on Sunday’s developments, Pelini wrote in a text to The Associated Press: “I’m good. Thanks for asking!”
Eichorst said he alone would conduct the search for a new coach. He gave no timetable for naming a replacement.
Nebraska joins Florida as a high-profile program with a coaching vacancy, and others could arise soon. Eichorst said he wasn’t worried about competing with other schools.
“Resources are not the question here at Nebraska,” he said. “That doesn’t mean we’re not going to be responsible and good stewards of our resources. I’ve seen people spend a lot of money and not do very much winning, so we’re going to get it right.”
Eichorst said his decision to fire Pelini “crystalized” Saturday night. Eichorst said he met in his office for 20 minutes with Pelini on Sunday morning and their conversation was “cordial and professional.”
“After I told him that we were going a different direction,” Eichorst said, “I think there was agreement that that probably was a good idea.”
A number of players expressed disappointment in the decision, with quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. tweeting, “Biggest mistake you ever made.... Bo was the best coach I’ve ever had and I’ll always appreciate the things you taught me.”
Pelini brought the Huskers out of the depths of the failed four-year Bill Callahan experiment that ended in 2007. But his four-losses-a-year habit and frequent losses on the national stage wore on a fan base that has filled Memorial Stadium for every home game since 1962.
Nebraska ranks fourth in career victories and has won five national championships, including three in the four years before Tom Osborne retired as coach after the 1997 season. The dominant run in the mid-1990s has been an albatross for the coaches who followed — first Frank Solich and then Callahan and Pelini.
Bad losses started to haunt Pelini after Nebraska moved to the Big Ten. The 70-31 pummeling by unranked Wisconsin in the 2012 conference championship game was the worst, followed closely by this year’s 59-24 throttling by the Badgers in a game in which Melvin Gordon ran for a then-FBS record 408 yards.
Nebraska, as a ranked team, lost seven games by 17 or more points since 2011. No other ranked team has lost so many games so lopsidedly over that span, according to STATS.
“There are standards and expectations at Nebraska that are high both on and off the field and although we did win a bunch of games, we didn’t win the games that mattered the most, and I think we gave Coach ample time, ample resources and ample support to get that done,” Eichorst said.
Eichorst indicated he wasn’t worried about the message he was sending by firing a coach who won 71 percent of his games. The dismissal was reminiscent of the one in 2003, when then-athletic director Steve Pederson fired Solich after a 9-3 regular season and after Solich had won 75 percent of his games over six years.
Pelini drew detractors almost as much for his volatile temper as for his team’s performances in big games. He was reprimanded by chancellor Harvey Perlman for sideline meltdowns during a loss at Texas A&M in 2010. Last year, Pelini found himself in a storm after the website Deadspin released audio of Pelini’s profanity-laced tirade against what he called fair-weather fans and two newspaper writers.
Pelini had initially endeared himself to Nebraska fans as defensive coordinator in 2003. After Solich was fired, Pelini was interim coach for the Huskers’ Alamo Bowl victory over Michigan State. As he walked off the field in San Antonio, Husker fans chanted, “We want Bo!”
Callahan was hired instead, and Pelini took defensive coordinator jobs at Oklahoma and LSU, winning the 2007 national title with the Tigers.
Osborne, as athletic director, picked Pelini to replace Callahan, saying an immediate defensive fix was needed.
After the Huskers shut out Arizona 33-0 in the 2009 Holiday Bowl, Pelini famously shouted, “Nebraska’s back and we’re here to stay.”
The proclamation proved premature.